South Bend Symphony concert characterized by youth, optimism

Joshua Roman
South Bend Tribune

Just a matter of hours before Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced that he would be giving the 2020 presidential race an infusion of youthful energy, the South Bend Symphony Orchestra delivered an evening characterized by a similar spirit.

Orchestras all over the world are increasingly mindful of engaging young new audiences now in order to make sure that classical music can continue to thrive in future decades. On Saturday at the Morris Performing Arts Center, the SBSO presented a concert that pulsed with lively dance rhythms and relied heavily on the contributions of a young composer and an even younger soloist.

Although it was unusual to see a laptop computer sitting among the orchestral instruments for the opening piece, the performance went over without any controversy. The composition — “Mothership” by Mason Bates — is the type of bouncy, pulsating light-classical piece that Hans Zimmer and John Williams have explored to much success.

“Mothership” cruised by pleasantly enough, but the showstopper was the second Bates piece in the program, the much more elaborate Cello Concerto.

Willis, who lives in Seattle, was actually present at the rehearsals and world premiere of the concerto when the Seattle Symphony debuted the composition in 2014. The cello soloist, Joshua Roman, still holds exclusive performance rights to the piece, so to this day, he is the only person ever to play the part. This made for a practically ideal scenario: both conductor and soloist for this concert are as familiar with the work as anyone in the world.

Roman is a rising star with incredible potential, and he is as likely as anyone to take the mantle someday from the current reigning cello champions Steven Isserlis and Yo-Yo Ma. In the pre-concert conversation, Willis even went so far as to say that posterity might look upon the Bates-Roman connection with the same reverence that’s given to historic composer-cellist team-ups such as Dmitri Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich.

Willis conducted the concerto with mastery, coaxing razor-sharp playing from the SBSO, and Roman was incandescent, with expressiveness to match his virtuosity. In a sequence that requires him to deploy a guitar pick, he flat-out rocked.

A standing ovation brought Roman out for a bow, but instead of offering an encore, the cellist retrieved his pick and chucked it out into the seats so that a lucky fan could catch it and take it home for a souvenir. The gesture brought to mind the crowd-pleasing antics of Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick.
Read the full review here